The Mother’s Milk of Politics

January 30, 2010 at 11:03 am (By Rodjean)

The Las Vegas Review Journal reported today that Harry Reid raised $15M in political contributions for his campaign in 2009. It amounts to $7.50 for every man, woman, and child in Nevada and probably about $30 per voter, which seems to me an astounding sum when you consider that Harry wasn’t on a ballot in 2009. He spent $2M campaigning in the last three months of a year when he wasn’t running. All of this occurred in the middle of a deep recession before the Supreme Court struck down caps on corporate contributions. By the next election day, Harry might end up spending $45M running for office. If he gets 50% of the vote, he will end up spending an amazing $180 for every voter who actually presses the button for him.

Admittedly, the Nevada Senate raise is going to draw more attention and money than usual this year, but I believe these numbers are indicative of how much of our money is getting devoted to the political process.

At first blush, you might think this would lead me to favor imposing campaign spending limits. I might do so if I thought they had any chance of working. Instead, they invite massive evasion. I suppose disclosing how much Exxon or Bank of America gives to a candidate might help keep the public informed about who owes what to whom, but there are very few public servants who will not listen to the donor of $100,000.

36 Comments

  1. Theo Boehm said,

    Proving, once again, that we have the best politicians money can buy.

  2. Icepick said,

    Theo, we may have the best politicians that THAT amount of money can buy. But $45,000,000 for a six year term comes to $7.5M per yer. That’s the cost of a good role player in the NBA, or perhaps a middle reliever in baseball. But compare those positions to Senate Majority Leader – the one is much more important than the others. And all we’re likely to get for that is Harry Reid. Clearly we’re not spending enough!

  3. Ruth Anne said,

    I think anyone should be able to give any amount they want to give and the politician wishes to accept….so long as it is published within 24 hours online and is searchable by name of politician and donor.

    Wanna take $5 million from George Soros? Great! Tell me about it the day the charge clears. Sunshine is, as they say, a great disinfectant and people are known by the company they keep.

  4. Ruth Anne said,

    The one caveat I would make is that foreign nationals may not contribute to our political process.

  5. bknister said,

    The recent Supreme Court decision makes what was already an electoral process awash in special interest money into a strictly retail transaction. There’s only one way to end this: federal funding for all national elections.
    For a more whimsical take, you might be interested in http://drinksbeforedinner.com

  6. Donna B. said,

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I think full disclosure to the public of who donated how much to which candidate could be a restriction of the 1st Amendment right of freedom of assembly. As Ruth Anne says… people are known by the company they keep.

    What I’d like to see if for all donations to political candidates to be completely anonymous, to the point where the candidate doesn’t even know who donated.

  7. Donna B. said,

    if = is.

  8. Theo Boehm said,

    Well, I DID say “politicians.”

    When Harry Reid can throw a 97 mph fast ball right down the middle, followed by a wicked breaking ball and an unhitable changeup, THEN the $7.5M/year would indeed be chump change.

    As it is, he mostly tries to throw beanballs, and his pickoff attempts generally wind up over the first baseman’s head in the stands.

  9. Icepick said,

    Theo, true dat.

  10. Icepick said,

    From a comment I wrote today on Donna B’s blog:

    My proposal for campaign finance reform would be this: Anyone can give any sum of money to a candidate with two restrictions: (1) Disclosure must be public and immediate, and (2) you can only give to candidates that you can legally vote for.

    There are two obvious problems with my idea, though. First, it would take a constitutional amendment to enact. Second, that might just make third parties more powerful. For example, in some poor congressional district neither candidate might be able to raise much money. Some outside organization (a party, PAC, business or just some individual) could spend a gob of money in the district to bolster the candidate of their choice. (Or even a candidate in another race that includes the same area: for example a gubernatorial or presidential candidate doing adds that say, “Vote for me and my good buddy Whosits!”)

    The only way around that would be some sort of restrictions concerning who could run adds and when, but then it gets very dicey as that WOULD be regulation of free speech.

  11. Icepick said,

    Donna, the anonymous donor ID is interesting. Unfortunately it won’t work either, as there is nothing to stop people from whispering to a politician what they have done. Also, we know almost all union money would go to Dems, and it would be easy enough to figure out that anyone loudly supporting you has also given cash.

    Frankly, I don’t think we can solve this problem. (Government funding of candidates is perhaps the worst idea – the government will thus get to choose the ‘legitimate’ candidates. The government is closed enough as is without them excercising this new authority.) I’m afraid we’re stuck with it until the citizens demand an end to a governing class by refusing to re-elct pols in perpituity. And even that would only be a partial solution.

    Thus ends my current spate of comment spamming….

  12. amba12 said,

    *sigh*

    I’m just waiting to be disappointed by Scott Brown. . . . He’s good, though. He’s really good. Knows how to find an independent’s G spot. (What does that translate as in political terms? Give spot? I actually gave.) It actually took me a minute to see how carefully crafted his image was.

  13. Donna B. said,

    Icepick – I thought about the possibility of someone telling the candidate they’d just donated a million bucks to his campaign… and came to the conclusion that wouldn’t matter because it couldn’t be verified and that there would be people who didn’t donate a dime claiming to have donated much more.

    Another reason I like the idea is that it would remove the need to donate to show one’s “bona fides”. Unions might very well give to all the money to dems if dems campaigned on grounds that helped them. But it also might cause some of the money to NOT go to dems that were not helpful.

    I may be in the minority, but the idea of treating unions the same as corporations is silly to me. While corporations can certainly become corrupt, laws are in place to at least try to prevent it… whereas for unions, laws are in place that encourage corruption.

    The thing I like best about completely anonymous donations is that I think it would greatly reduce the amount of cash available to campaigning, making the campaigns focus on the more sensible use of the money.

    If it were permissible under the 1st Amendment to prohibit any one group of people from donating to, endorsing, or campaigning for someone – it would be celebrities. And I’d get to decide who belonged to that group :-)

  14. amba12 said,

    Off topic, I am mystified why I’m suddenly having to approve comments by long-established commenters.?! WordPress must need burping.

  15. Icepick said,

    Donna, it’s true that anyone could claim to have made a conribution. But if George Soros gave a presidential candidae $50,000,000 dollars, there won’t be many people who could credibly claim to have made the donation!

    I would consider such a donation much less corrupting than the crap that goes on now. My wife and I are currently reading Game Change (checked out from the local library) and it’s distressing just how much of a candidate’s time and calculation is concerned solely with fund-raising. It seems that a large part of the reason Obama chose to run when he did was because he realized people loved throwing money at him.

  16. Peter Hoh said,

    Amba wrote: “I’m just waiting to be disappointed by Scott Brown. . . .”

    Let’s see, relatively unknown state senator decides to run for vacant US Senate seat. His party has been licking their wounds, so to speak, and his fresh face is a sorely needed balm. Even better, he appeals to those who have become disenchanted with politics. He’s thrust on to the national stage before he’s won the election. What does he stand for, exactly? No one’s really sure. He’s the blank screen upon which independents and his party project their hopes and dreams. He plays the part well, wins his election, and heads to the Senate bearing great expectations.

    I think I’ve heard this story before.

  17. amba12 said,

    EXACTLY.

  18. Donna B. said,

    I never plan to be disappointed! That’s helped by never getting my hopes up too high also. They were never high for Obama as president.

    But, another similarity is the absolutely horrid candidates running against them for the Senate. Coakley? Keyes? Oh my…

  19. pathmv said,

    Donna, it would be impossible to police. You can mandate non-disclosure, but how do you actually process the money? I suppose you could provide some sort of agency which receives the funds, then transmits them to the candidate. But you’d have to put the candidate’s name in the memo field of the check, or on a form someplace, and the candidate (whether it’s against the law or not, doesn’t matter, because far too hard to police) then asks to see the cancelled check or a screenshot of the form, or whatever.

    Then there’s the problem of independent expenditures; the AFL-CIO takes out a whole bunch of ads saying “Vote for Democrat X on Tuesday!” and the candidate sure knows that the AFL-CIO is putting its money where its mouth is in supporting his campaign.

    So I’m with the full immediate disclosure crowd. I say ditch the limits, and just require prompt disclosure. Anything over $5,000, and you’ve got 5 hours from receipt to post it. Everything else, posted within 24 hours.

    On another subject raised above, kindly keep in mind that we’re not actually paying our representatives and senators that much money; that’s just the cost for them to get the <$200,000 a year job.

    The real problem, as several have suggested, is the unwillingness of voters to kick out those who don't really perform much. Bring back enough pork for your district, or just be thought of as a decent sort of fellow, and they'll keep voting you in as long as you want. I've seen many, many people complain about politicians in general, but anytime you raise an issue with one that more or less stands on their side of certain issues, they suddenly start talking like you need some sort of proof, maybe even beyond a reasonable doubt, of some sort of misconduct before the guy ought to be voted out.

  20. William O. B'Livion said,

    “””it’s distressing just how much of a candidate’s time and calculation is concerned solely with fund-raising.”””

    Better out raising funds than in D.C. “doing the peoples business”.

    Donna, pathmv:
    I had a similar idea many years ago–that anyone can contribute any amount of money to a campaign or candidate, but that money gets “blinded” first. Mechanically it’s fairly easy to do, you simply establish the “First Bank of Political Donations”, and ALL (federal) campaign funds must flow through there. As donations come in to the candidates account funds are disbursed on a day average with a bit of randomization mixed in. This is trivially implemented and easily audited. The day after an election the account is zeroed out all at once and starts over. This makes it very difficult for a candidate to tell who gave how much.

    The other thing is that I don’t believe that money really buys *most* candidates votes. I believe that when G. Soros gives a metric assload of money to the Democrats he does it not because it gets them to do what he wants, but rather that the subset of democrats he gives to are Progressives who’s vision for, and idea of America is one that I find repugnant.

    The only way to get money out of politics is to take the power out of politics. The less congress CAN do, the less large companies and rich reformers will try to ask it to do.

  21. William O. B'Livion said,

    Actually, that second to last paragraph wandered off target a bit.

    It should read more like:
    The other thing is that I don’t believe that money really buys *most* candidates votes. I believe that when G. Soros gives a metric assload of money to the Democrats he does it not because it gets them to do what he wants, but rather that the subset of democrats he gives to are Progressives who’s vision for, and idea of America is one that is very similar to his, and which I find repugnant. He gives to people who would do what he wants if they had the resources, which he then gives them.

  22. pathmv said,

    The problem with the First Bank of Political Donations doesn’t really work, because there’s nothing stopping the candidate from asking to see the cancelled check or the credit card statement or whatever showing the contribution and the form telling the bank to which candidate it is directed. It would also, of course, eliminate a whole lot of traditional forms of donation-inspiring activities, such as the traditional $X per head fund-raising dinner.

    Now, maybe we’d be better off without those things, but a lot of people seem willing to pony up for them, and they do provide some mechanism for communication and community-building between the candidate and his supporters.

    William, I agree completely with your last paragraph at #20.

  23. Icepick said,

    William, the money doesn’t buy votes, but it does buy access. That may be even worse. Having a Senator or Congressman make a call to a federal regulator can be more important than how they vote on this or that piece of legislation. And you can’t get a Senator or Congressman to do that unless you can get access to them.

    (I believe this kind of interplay was a large part of what happened in the Keating Five scandal but I don’t have time to look it up. I’m sure Pat will remember.)

  24. Icepick said,

    Pat, here would be the way to get around the cancelled check problem. Have the First Bank of Political Donations take only cash. Someone could still present a check later to show they withdrew a certain amount of money, but it becomes harder to pin things down.

    You’re other point is harder to correct. Perhaps allow no one to run ads over the last n weeks of the campaign except candidates. (Yes, that again would require a national amendment.)

  25. Rod said,

    From the comments to date, several options emerge. Each has its flaws.

    “Blind” contributions would make sense if they truly were blind. I think members of the state automobile dealers association will find a way of letting the candidate they jointly pony up $100,000.

    Unlimited contributions with full disclosure has the benefit of not impairing freedom of speech. It might also end the stupid language of interest group backed adds, of the “Call Senator Feinstein and tell her to stop supporting killing babies” ilk. This still leaves most candidates groveling for money most of the time, and it encourages overspending on ads.

    Requiring free time for all candidates on television and radio stations and prohibiting any ads might be better that the present system. Paid political advertising does little to really inform the public in a meaningful way.

  26. pathmv said,

    Rather than regulate OUR behavior, why not regulate the behavior of members of Congress? Congress can impair the activities of its own members all it wants. But it doesn’t want to do that, it wants to impair OUR ability to influence each other about who to vote for.

    But Congress could easily, for example, pass a rule or a statute prohibiting any member of Congress (or their staffs) from making any communication to the executive branch regarding any person or company who has contributed to that Congressman’s campaign in the past 2 election cycles. It could likewise prohibit inserting any directed appropriation (i.e., pork) for any project which would provide funds to any person or company who contributed to the Congressman in the past 2 campaigns.

    In other words, give all you want (with disclosure). But if you want to have your Congressman do something for YOU in return, they can’t do it. You can either participate in the electoral process by campaign giving, or you can seek assistance from your Congressman for administrative problems or to get them to fund a great local project, but you can’t do both.

  27. wj said,

    Sorry I’m late. (Business trips, especially ones that last thru the weekend, are a real pain!)

    Donna, I am totally lost. How does the fact that you are known to donate to a politician (or NGO or cause) violate freedom of assembly? (Jan 30, 7:10) Now if someone was saying that you couldn’t donate, that might be different. But just saying that your donation could not be secret/anonymous? So what?

    After all, if you physically assembled, the fact that you did so would be known to anyone who was there. Or anyone that they talked to. Hardly a secret. So why would being unable to give money anonymously be a violation of freedom of assembly.

    Since nobody else asked, I figure I may be missing something obvious here. Help?

  28. Donna B. said,

    wj – I came to the conclusion that compelling one’s political donations to be made public can cause harm after having seen a contractor lose a job when her support of GW Bush became known.

    At the time, I worked for the non-profit which offered the contract and was in the meeting where it was decided to withdraw the offer. That’s when I realized I could not freely express my political opinions anywhere in any way that might get back to the bosses, else I’d be fired. This non-profit was funded in large part by federal grants.

    The whole thing made me ill.

    It also made me realize that if my support for GW Bush (or any Republican) became known to my husband’s union, his chances of getting a job assignment could be greatly diminished. (The BA decided who to call without aid of a formal process.)

    It’s more freedom of association, but isn’t that related to freedom to assemble?

    So, in general, I oppose any law which compels lists of people be made public when the criteria for being on the list can associate them with a political view.

    ………….
    PatHMV – #22, as to what’s stopping the politician from asking to see the cancelled check or form? I dunno… maybe a law? It’s not a perfect solution, but then neither is full disclosure by the donor.

    For some reason, I don’t have a problem with issue ads as long as the association buying them is identified… unless the association is ALSO required to make its membership list public!

  29. wj said,

    Donna, no question that there can be private retaliation when someone doesn’t like your politics. But there could be the same retaliation if they didn’t like the political event that you attended (whether they saw you, or saw you on the news). Just as they could if they didn’t like your clothing style. But that’s not a First Amendment violation. All the 1st Amendment does is guarantee that the government won’t constrain you. What your neighbors, employer, etc. do is not covered.

    Now you can prefer that people’s political views not be subject to public view. I personally see that as a case of the cure being worse than the disease, but it is a point on which reasonable people may differ. It was just the freedom of assembly part that was confusing me.

  30. Donna B. said,

    wj, consider that the government enables private retaliation by requiring disclosure of activities and associations.

    Why do some insist governments should disclose who possesses a CCW permit?

    Attending an event involves a decision on my part to disclose my support/affiliation. Why can I not choose to support something anonymously? Who does that hurt?

    btw, I am not advocating that corporations, unions, incorporated associations, etc… are entitled to all the rights that an individual is. Disclosure there, I think is important. One of the worst things about McCain-Feingold is that it actually made it MORE difficult to find out about corporate donations/influence.

    ……..

    — why would anyone want to spend millions of dollars to get a job that pays only $200,000/year? The benefits must be awesome :-)

  31. pathmv said,

    wj, in NAACP v. Alabama, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment’s right to freedom of assembly extends to joining private groups whose membership is kept private.

    In that case, the state of Alabama was demanding the NAACP’s membership lists, on allegations that it had violated some business trade law. The Supreme Court held that the rights of the individual NAACP to assemble outweighed the state’s interest in obtaining that disclosure. The Court said that revealing the group’s membership: “is likely to affect adversely the ability of [the NAACP] and its members to pursue their collective effort to foster beliefs which they admittedly have the right to advocate, in that it may induce members to withdraw from the Association and dissuade others from joining it because of fear of exposure of their beliefs shown through their associations and of the consequences of this exposure.”

    Funny how nobody’s mentioned that decision in the fight being waged against supporters of Prop 8 about gay marriage.

  32. pathmv said,

    Note, by the way, that the government action comes in where the state requires disclosure. That’s the state action which is being constrained, not the private reactions of others.

  33. Donna B. said,

    patHMV — I’ve wondered about that, but wasn’t that issue actually in Oregon or Washington where some were asking for a list of petition signers after the proposition they got on the ballot was voted down?

    One thing not addressed here so far as to “follow the money” in elections is who actually stands to lose the most if campaign spending is somehow curtailed. It really isn’t the politician or the donor, but those who get paid to make and air the ads.

    The idea of all donations to a campaign being completely anonymous is an ideal, or fantasy, if you like that term better. What we don’t think of never has a chance of being implemented, so I’m all for generating fantasies.

    Another fantasy I’ve toyed with over the years is limiting campaigns to a certain period of time, and pre-defined vehicles for campaigning. Say, for example, each candidate is allowed X minutes of air time and X inches of print. Actually, I’d like to limit it to X inches of print. That way, citizens wouldn’t have to remember (or record) promises in order to decide to vote somebody out because they didn’t live up to their promises.

    Of course it’s not workable and probably not constitutional. Although time and place restrictions on speech seem to allowable as long as content is not considered… But, of course, a restriction on WHO can speak is despicable also.

    As much as they are maligned, politicians have just as much right to lie to us as anyone else.

  34. wj said,

    Pat, somehow the decision you mention puts me in mind of Roe v. Wade.

    In both cases, the Court did something that arguably should have been done — but in order to do so they invented a reason which is nowhere in the Constitution. (For the record, I believe both that abortion should not be illegal; and that Roe v. Wade is garbage as Constitutional law.) I can understand why the Court felt impelled to act as they did. But it is hard to understand the Constitutional basis for them doing so.

  35. pathmv said,

    Well, I agree with you as far as Roe v. Wade goes, but the NAACP v. Alabama case seems quite in accordance with basic constitutional provisions. It tells the state it can’t just go on a fishing expedition for the names of members of private associations. The Constitution quite explicitly protects the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances. The court merely recognized that, in the real world, requiring the disclosure of the membership lists of those private associations would infringe upon that right. True, the constitution doesn’t specifically guarantee anonymity, but neither does it say that it’s not there, either. It’s a fairly straight-forward case applying a particular set of facts to a fairly broad constitutional textual provision.

  36. Mark @ Israel said,

    I really wonder how politicians could spend so much money in their campaigns. And the more I wonder about the sources of their campaign funds. This could probably be the reason why candidates who get elected find a way to pay back those who have helped them win the elections. It’s quite sickening.

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